What is a Rusyn?

by Richard D. Custer, Washington, DC

Rusyns (sometimes spelled Rusins, or called Carpatho-Rusyns signifying their villages being in the Carpathian Mountains) are one of the many nationalities/ethnic groups of Slovakia, along with Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans, and Romanies (Gypsies). Rusyns are eastern Slavs, which means that their history, culture, and language are rooted in the medieval Kievan Rus' kingdom (Slovaks, by contrast, are western Slavs), although Slovaks and Rusyns have lived together on the same territory for nearly 1000 years (and share some cultural traits). Traditionally, almost all Rusyns belong to the Byzantine/Greek Catholic or Orthodox Christian churches. Rusyns have never had their own country, but their homeland today lies in 3 countries: Slovakia, Ukraine (the Transcarpathian Oblast, former Subcarpathian Rus/Ruthenia, part of Czecho-Slovakia from 1919 until 1939), and Poland (the Lemko Region, formerly part of Galicia). There are approximately 1.5 million Rusyns in Europe today, and about 120,000 of them are in Slovakia.

Most Rusyns in Slovakia live in the east, mainly in the districts of Star Lubovňa, Spisk Nov Ves, Bardejov, Svidnk, Stropkov, Medzilaborce, Humenn, and Snina, and in the city of Preov. The large towns of Svidnk, Medzilaborce, and Stakčn are mostly Rusyn-inhabited, and in all there are over 300 mostly-Rusyn villages in Slovakia. Some of the better-known are, in former Spi County: Osturňa, Veľk Lipnk, Folvark (today Straňany), Litmanov, Orjabina/Jarabina (also, Jarembina), Jakubany, Kamienka, Ihlany/Hodermark, Torysky, Olavica, Nin Repae, Porč, Zvadka, Slovinky, Helcmanovce, and Kojov; in former ari County: Mal Lipnk, Matysova, Sulin, Lutina (Ljucina), Malcov, ambron, Blaov (no longer existing), telbach (now Tich Potok), Čirč, Lukov, Vyn/Nin Tvaroec, Becherov, Ladomirov, Vyn/Nin Komarnik, and Krajn Čorn; in former Zempln County: Habura, Čertin, Mikov, Olka, Čabiny, Krsny Brod, Vyrava, Vilagy (now Svetlice), Pčolin, Nov Sedlica, Klenov, Kaln Roztoka, Valakovce; and in former U County: Klokočov, Beňatina, and Podhorod. Also, most villages with "Rus" in their name are Rusyn-inhabited, e.g., Rusk Vola, Rusk Poruba, Rusk Hrabovec, Rusk Bystr, Rusk Potok, Rusk Volov, Rusk Nov Ves.

Rusyns speak a language also called Rusyn (which like all languages has a number of different dialects). The language spoken by Eastern Slovaks and Rusyns is similar in many ways, but for example, verb infinitives in Rusyn end in -iti, e.g., "hovoriti", "hvariti", or "bisidovati" (all three meaning to speak), whereas the East Slovak "to speak" is "hutoric" and literary Slovak is "hovorit." Rusyn is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but the Latin alphabet has also been used, especially in Slovakia. Since 1995, a codified, standard literary language has been in use in the Slovak Republic.

Rusyns have typical Slavic first names like Michael (Michal or Michajlo), John (Jan or Ivan, nicknames Vaňo or Janko), Marija (Marja, Marka, Marička), Helen (Olena or Helena) and Anna (Hanna, Hanka, Haňa) or Anastasia. But several first names are peculiar to Rusyns (and extremely rare among Slovaks): for males, Vasil (Vasko), Dimitrij (Mitro), and Demjan (i.e., Damian); for females, Paraskeva (Paraska, Pajza, usually anglicized to Pearl), Hafia, and Tekla.

Rusyn surnames vary widely, many ending in "skyj", but some other common endings are "čak", "čik", "jak" "ňak" or "nyak", "ko" or especially "nko" and "sko", "iin" and "ovič". Examples of these are Brudňak, Rybovič, Herko, Krupiňak, Hricko, Hrinko, Hvozdovič, Jasenčak, Korčak, Kačak, Kovalčik, Krajňak, Vislockyj, Zavackyj, Rusinko, Rusiňak, utak, Timko, Lipčak, Vovčko, Hopko, Vaenko, Sosenko. Some contain forms of first names: Fedorčak, Michaliin, Mihalko, Mihalič, Pavelčak, Petrisko, Petrik, Daňo, Demčak, Vasilenko, Vasilko, Mitro, Mitrenko, Miterko, Demko, Demjan, Havrilak, Ivančo, Ivančo, Jankura (from Janko -- John), Jurčiin (from Jurko -- George), Kuzmjak (from "Kuzma"), Lukač, Lukačik, Lukacko, Onufrjak (from Onufrij), Semančik (from Seman -- Simeon), Stefanisko. Others might signify coming from a certain Rusyn village: Jarabinec, Jakubjanskyj, Čukalovčak (from Čukalovce, Zemplin), Haburčak, Krenickyj (from Krynica in the Lemko Region of Poland), Zavačan (from Zavadka, Spi). Other examples of common Rusyn last names are Beňo, Dugan, Holovač, Kapral, Kundrat, and Uram.

In Slovakia, Rusyns are best known for their wooden Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches (some of which are in outdoor museums - skanzens - in Star Lubovňa, Svidnk, and Humenn) and their icons (especially those in the ari Museum in Bardejov), their Easter eggs (pisanky or kraanky), and their folk dancing and singing. Folk festivals of Rusyn folksong & dance ensembles are held annually in Svidnk, Medzilaborce, Kamienka, Bardejov, Mikov, Pichn, and elsewhere. One of the most popular Rusyn folksongs is "Červena rua trojaka" -- "Red rose," but Rusyns also share songs with their Eastern Slovak neighbors, like "Rozmarija", "Ja parobok z Kapuan", and "Od Ungvara." In recent years, Rusyn songs like "Krjačok lalijovyj" and many others have been popularized throughout Slovakia by well-known Rusyn singers Anna Servicka, Anna Poračova-utakova, tefan Lukacko & Jan Karaffa, and tefan Vasilenko & Ladislav Dupin.

In the 1950s, the Rusyn nationality in Czecho-Slovakia was declared to be Ukrainian. The vast majority of Rusyns refused a Ukrainian identity, instead declaring their nationality as Slovak. Rusyn cultural institutions were changed to Ukrainian, and the use of the Rusyn language in official communications ceased. In consequence, most villages had only a Slovak-language school and a Slovak identity and orientation were adopted by most of the Rusyn populace, and they were, in effect, de-nationalized.

Today Rusyns in Slovakia are undergoing a revival after the fall of Communism in 1989. Today they have their own weekly newspaper (Narodnŷ novynkŷ), magazine (Rusyn), radio programs (from Preov), art museum (the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce), dramatic theatre (the Alexander Duchnovič Theatre in Preov, which performs classic and new plays in the Rusyn language); and since 1997-98 school year, some elementary schools in towns and villages provide instruction to their students in the Rusyn language in addition to Slovak, the national language of Slovakia. Their struggle now is to reverse tens of years of denationalization and assimilation into the dominant Slovak nationality.

Most Rusyn immigrants to America came between 1880 and 1914, to places like New York City, Passaic, NJ, Bridgeport, CT, the eastern PA hard coal regions, western PA (esp. Pittsburgh and Johnstown), Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit. Today smaller numbers of Rusyns are coming from Slovakia, especially from villages like Litmanov and Jarabina, mostly to metro New York/New Jersey. Over 750,000 Americans have at least one Rusyn immigrant ancestor. Rusyn Americans have made names for themselves in many fields: actresses Sandra Dee and Lizabeth Scott, actor Robert Urich (half-Rusyn, half-Slovak), artist Andy Warhol, boxer Pete Latzo, Marine Sgt. Michael Strank who raised the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, composer Peter Wilhousky, and Washington Capitols hockey star Peter Bondra.

If you're interested further in this topic, or think you may have Rusyn heritage, the Carpatho-Rusyn Society , 125 Westland Drive, Pittsburgh PA 15217, can help you out. Books about Rusyns in Europe and America (and a map of villages in Carpatho-Rusyn areas of Slovakia, Hungary, and Ukraine) are available from the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center , 7380 SW 86 Lane, Ocala, FL 34476-7006.

The author is a founder of the Carpatho-Rusyn Society and the editor of its bi-monthly newsletter, The New Rusyn Times